Goodbye Old SAT, Hello New SAT, Pt. 1: Critical Reading


Today marks the final testing date for the old SAT (at least, if you are not currently caught in two feet of snow). So what does that mean? Do we throw a big "going away" party and move on with our lives?

Not exactly.

Now that the old SAT is done, we can focus more on the SAT’s changes and how you should prepare to take the new format, if you decide to do so. We will publish a series of posts over the next few weeks that focuses on individual subjects. This week’s topic is the new SAT Critical Reading, the section that has given many students grief and (spoiler alert!) will probably continue to do so.

Here are the key changes and considerations:

1. Structure: All questions are in just one section, instead of three, and you have 65 minutes to answer 52 questions.

The new format places all the Critical Reading passages into a single section, a move that seems like a net positive. Because you can simply focus on reading all at once, you are able to concentrate better.

That is not bad logic, but there’s also the problem that the section may be too long. Each test has five passages. One is literature, two are social studies, and two are science. If you are not careful, you may get stalled by a passage and lose track of time. Or worse yet, reading so many passages in a row may create more test fatigue.

The benefit of multiple sections is that you can focus briefly on a few passages before breaking up the information with another subject--math or writing. Now that’s not the case, so you should definitely plan for a more mentally draining Critical Reading section, and be sure to practice pacing.

2. Content: Passages are a lot more technical and, dare I say, boring. Also, there are no more sentence completions or short passages.

Because College Board wants students to show how prepared they are for college and job training, it is including more passages that focus on technical science content, economics, sociology, historical speeches, and other dry topics. Be ready to read four non-fiction passages that are heavy on details and case studies.

The old Critical Reading offered more interesting passages, which usually made answering the questions a bit easier. The absence of sentence completions and short passages may seem like a good thing, but again, consider how the lack of variety in passage length and content can make the test denser and more exhausting.

3. Question types: all the old favorites return (main idea, tone, detail, inference, vocab, and analogy). And there are two others--evidence and graphics--which create new challenges.

The question types that appear on most reading tests also, of course, appear on the new Critical Reading. Expect to answer questions about the author’s primary purpose and attitude. Also, the bulk of the questions will be about specific information in the passage--detail and inference questions.

With regards to the detail and inference questions, there’s one major catch. There are fewer line references in the questions, so you may feel less certain about where to support your answer with evidence from the passage. Also, the new format scrambles the questions a bit more, so while before you could rely on answering the questions in order of information in the passage, you now have to be more conscious of where information appears in the passage all on your own.

The two new question types--evidence and graphics--both pose a new set of challenges too. Evidence questions are directly linked (usually) to a previous detail question. To make the task easier for both questions, you should answer any detail-evidence set at the same time, using the evidence line references to guide your correct answer in the detail question.

For graphics questions, it seems that you can usually just read the graph and get the correct answer. Seldom do the questions require you to reference information in the passage. Just be sure you read the graph carefully and know that College Board is still trying to trick you, so information from the graph may be switched around in the answer choices.

4. Vocabulary: Word difficulty is basically the same, despite what College Board claims.

While you may not see obscure words like “peccadillo” (a minor fight), you will still encounter high-level vocabulary. If you are someone who reads periodicals like the New York Times, the New Yorker, or the Economist, then you’ve probably encountered a lot of the vocabulary on the new Critical Reading. Also, fans of 19th century literature should be in good shape. Maybe it is time to start reading Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, or Herman Melville. If not, get a subscription to an advanced-level newspaper or journal for extra practice.

5. Strategies: passage-first and question-first are your best bets.

The new Critical Reading reading strategies break into two categories: passage-first and question-first. Both strategies come with advantages and disadvantages. It really just amounts to preference and reading style.

One thing you should always keep in mind with the SAT Critical Reading, regardless of new or old format, is that the questions, unless about main idea or tone, want you to use a single location in the passage to arrive at the correct answer. You should not combine information from all paragraphs to get an answer. While there may be fewer line references, the question-first strategy may still be a better choice for saving time if you use keywords and smart skimming.

Overall, the new SAT Critical Reading section will present new obstacles but eliminate some of the headaches of the old test. If I were to rank the difficulty of new and old, I’d say that the older one is a little harder because of the sentence completions. However, in terms of reading passages, the new format is a little bit more challenging. And time now is much more of a factor.

With all of these changes, there is one important thing to keep in mind: don’t go into the new test thinking it will be similar to the old one. Practice and preparation are key, and at B2A we have a spring semester course and a March cram course to help prepare students for the new SAT spring tests. Let us help you uncover the secrets and master the next stage in SAT testing.

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